Blog - Safe Haven is Just the Beginning
Written by Colleen Joubert, Director of Communications & Development
Being able to live in a house or apartment that you’re able to afford is increasingly difficult and evident in the growing population of homeless individuals and families in our communities. The exacerbation of economic, social and emotional stressors is unmistakable at intake in our mental health and social services organizations, and we have more and more unhoused neighbors. The numbers of people experiencing economic insecurity, mental illness and addiction, and trauma-related concerns (the related struggles of homelessness) are increasing as well. COVID-19 has had more than a death toll.
In Woonsocket, between 60 and 120 individuals are living on the streets. Their scattered encampments shift from one location to another as police or property owners keep them moving and transitory. So what you see one day, might be out of sight the next. Out of sight, out of mind! Woonsocket is a microcosm of the nation.
In December 2020, there were 642 searches for “homeless shelter near me” and “shelters in RI” in our Google account for the Woonsocket Shelter. The RI Coalition for the Homeless reports a 92% increase in homelessness over last year. Families seeking help with housing often live for weeks on end in a single hotel room while waiting for an opening at a shelter. The Hotel Voucher program is a holding system for entering a shelter because there aren’t enough beds, and is mainly used for the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions, and families with children.
People who are homeless might live in a box, but they can’t be boxed into one category. A significant number of homeless people are LGBTQ+, indicative of the discrimination and stigma they live by. In Woonsocket, we estimate that 50% are white, 70% are male, 25% female and 5% transgender. Young people are more vulnerable today than they were 20 years ago as the costs of higher education is out of reach. For those who do obtain a higher education, student debt is higher now than any time in our history, crushing the “American Dream” that their parents and grandparents were able to achieve. A lot of adolescents and young adults are among the couch surfers, sleeping on the couch at someone else’s home because they have no place to live. It is likely that you know someone who does this and hope that they don’t wear out their welcome and land in the street.
Community Care Alliance has an outreach team that lends humanity to the lives of homeless people who say they are overwhelmed and feel left in the dust. At the most basic humanitarian level—is there access to clean water—homeless people are at tremendous risk and on the fringe of society with no way to shower or wash clothes, or even wash their hands. Many public places where they might sneak these things have closed doors due to the pandemic.
To these folks COVID is the least of their problems. “Why should I care about COVID? Nobody cares about me. I sleep with my head on the sidewalk.” If there is one good thing that this pandemic has wrought, it’s our heightened awareness of these societal disparities. We begin to ask what can we do to help people and lift them up?
Safe Haven is an answer that extends the humanitarian work of our outreach team by providing a place of warmth and comfort to people living out in the cold and wind. The warming center was an idea in November, 2020 that came to fruition as a result of continuous advocacy and the generous philanthropy of local citizens, partnership with St. James Baptist Church, and funding from Integrated Healthcare Partners, Bank Newport, and other revenues amounting to almost $140,000. Two months later, Safe Haven opened at 245 Main Street in Woonsocket where Community Care Alliance re-purposed the third floor. If you would like to contribute to keeping Safe Haven open, go to www.CommunityCareRI.org/Donate
At the very least, individuals who come to Safe Haven are able to be warm and have refreshments on Mondays through Fridays. Soon, they will have access to a washer and dryer and a “clothes closet” thanks to donations from Emmanuel Episcopal Church and the Rotary Club of Woonsocket.
The challenge is engaging with individuals to provide more. Over time, this population becomes accustomed to being socially isolated on the streets and being turned away from various levels of care. This might happen for something as simple as having lost their ID. Oftentimes they are unwilling to engage in services even though there is a need for intensive case management in order to make a difference in their situation.
Beyond providing respite, the goal is to build enough trust to put the right services in place. If anyone can make inroads to engagement, it is the staff at Safe Haven, including our Outreach Liaison, mentioned above, the Family Support Center Family Advocate, the Homeless Case Manager, and the Emergency Services Crisis Liaison. Referrals from Safe Haven are made to the agency’s Integrated Health Home and other programs that help with meeting basic needs for food and clothing, connecting to shelter or transitional housing, connecting with primary healthcare and enrolling in supportive programs, such as counseling, addiction treatment, employment supports.
The opening of Safe Haven is a fine example of what can be done when we come together with a vision for a society that works for everyone. Homelessness isn’t going to go away, but caring for all of our citizens is imperative to building a healthy community. Meanwhile, we reach out to those who have fallen through the cracks. That’s why Safe Haven is just the beginning.